Indigenous culture heritage: the ‘forgotten’ weapon/tool in the fight against climate change

4 mins read

By Stefano Cisternino

More and more studies are finding that protecting IPLCs’ lands (Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities), which are often crucial carbon sinks in certain regions, is essential to achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement to keep the global temperature rise to less than 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) above pre-industrial levels. Carbon dioxide equivalent to the United Kingdom’s yearly fossil fuel emissions was removed from the Amazon between 2001 and 2021 thanks to Indigenous conservation and sustainable use of forest resources.

Alternatives and means of adapting to the impacts of climate change, such as food systems, forest protection, architecture, and natural resources management, are already embedded in communities that have survived and adapted to local weather and ecosystems, according to the findings. The next step is to conduct additional studies and invite more individuals from different backgrounds to the “climate table” in order to ensure the survival of this cultural legacy and to employ it in the fight against climate change. They elaborate on how having legal title to their land has helped conservation efforts and made people more resilient to natural calamities. The United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is developing legal tools to safeguard intangible cultural assets such as genetic traditional knowledge and artistic expressions. Its target date for ratifying a treaty is 2024.

The researchers claim their papers are an attempt to draw attention to the fact that Indigenous and local populations’ expertise has been left out of climate mitigation initiatives. This is because information based on observation, interpretation, and incorporation of religious beliefs has been largely ignored by Western science. The scientific world is currently engaged in a heated discussion over the precise place of Indigenous knowledge systems in particular and the various traditional research activities under this category. Some academics classify it as a branch of science that shares commonalities with Western empirical science, while others argue that it is an entirely separate and significant body of knowledge in its own right. From how to make use of natural resources and organize communities and actions to imagining principles that govern connections with nature, the papers list dozens of approaches to past and present environmental problems that offer lessons for climate policy in both rural and urban settings.

Karunarathna, a member of the CRITICAL research team at the University of Edinburgh (CRITICAL –Cultural Heritage Risk and Impact Tools for Integrated and Collaborative Learning), investigates the intangible heritage contained in the customs and stories handed down through generations. She contributed a chapter to one of the papers, discussing how drought resistance was bolstered by women using folk songs to resurrect historic techniques of water storage system construction and administration. Traditional Inuit building materials such as snow, stone, driftwood, and animal skins are incorporated into net-zero emission homes in Nunavut, Canada, where coastal erosion threatens archaeological sites. In Aotearoa–New Zealand, the city of Auckland has developed a climate strategy that takes into account the rights of nonhuman animals by drawing inspiration from the Indigenous Mori’s cultural relationship with the environment. Stone tidal weirs that capture fish near the coast in Japan are at risk of extinction despite being a viable alternative to single-use plastic fishing gear.

The Honghe Hani rice terraces in China’s Yunnan region feature a water management technique that can resist prolonged periods of drought, making them another UNESCO World Heritage Site. To control the water supply at the peak of the surrounding mountains, a group of locals carved grooves into a wooden barrier. The forest at the top is revered because it stores and purifies the rainwater that flows down to the villages below. The Hani terraced fields still maintained good production functions despite a severe drought in the region between 2008 and 2012, according to a paper authored by Rouran Zhang of Shenzhen University. Despite the method’s success in a changing climate, it may be lost if too many farmers from rural areas move to urban centres. The Igorot people of the Philippines have long utilized stone walls to stabilize their rice terraces, and these days they also employ them to protect their hillside communities from erosion. The authors argue that the increased rainfall associated with a warmer climate would exacerbate erosion, and that stone walls provide a cheap and easily accessible means of protecting populations perched on slopes.

According to Wilfredo Alangui, a professor of ethnomathematics at the University of the Philippines Baguio, the technique relies on feel, which makes learning the ability time-consuming and the practice vulnerable to unexpected loss between generations. Instead of carbon-intensive cement, builders utilize exclusively local, natural materials. Many of these activities have their roots in religious and spiritual beliefs, which the authors suggest should be utilized in better climate solutions. According to a policy analyst with Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Indigenous Science Division named José Arias-Bustamante, spiritual understandings of humans’ place in the world guide decisions about how communities use natural resources like forests in both the Mapuche communities of Chile and the Nisga’a First Nation of Canada.

Mapuche custom dictates that before felling a tree, the cutter must offer an explanation to the forest’s spiritual guardian. This stems from the Indigenous belief in the Mapu, a notion that includes both the natural and spiritual aspects of Earth, as a home for various forms of life. However, the Mapuche in the Curacautn commune were only allowed to use 0.6 per cent of the more than 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) that made up their ancestral land. Since aquifers have depleted due to agricultural activity and the river is privately owned, water is now trucked into some villages known as laf. Displacement separated Mapuche communities in Curacautn from religious locations as well as their ancestral grounds. According to Arias-Bustamante, many Mapuche are concerned that their knowledge of long-term and spiritual ties is being lost. The Mapuche had to find new methods to provide for their family because they no longer practice farming, hunting, or gathering in the forests. In that instance, Arias-Bustamante explains, they can apply for a state forest management plan to legally log, a practice that typically results in even more forest degradation as the most valuable trees are harvested or as plantations are established in their stead.

While restoring and maintaining their forest may not be their top concern, doing so will help with climate change mitigation. Arias-Bustamante explains that reclaiming the land and reestablishing communication with Mapu and the spiritual realm is the top priority for them. According to the authors’ research, if the Mapuche people had better access to the ecosystems that could sustain them, they would use fewer trees in their daily lives and live less polluting lives in urban areas. This finding is in line with the growing body of evidence and popular support for the argument that securing land rights for Indigenous groups can also help reduce emissions. According to Arias-Bustamante, who details in a single report how cultural heritage from other parts of the world, not just the Western cultural sphere, can inform global climate mitigation, rapid urbanization and poverty are two of the greatest threats to sustainable ecosystem management in Mapuche communities.

By: Stefano Cisternino

Photography: Quang Nguyen Vinh

Previous Story

Reconstructing History, or Returning to it?

Next Story

The Last Colony in Africa: the Occupation and Repression of Western Sahara